Some things to think about before you commit to buying that whiz-bang interconnected device

thinker-Internet of Things-4Much has been made about the “Internet of Things” this year, in both the trade press and the popular media. As we’re placing our Amazon and Best Buy orders for holiday gifts, debating the merits of iOS vs. Android, i3 or i5 chips, and 4K Ultra HD technology, should we also be considering whether – and if so, how much – to link into the Internet of Things? We here in the CommLawBlog bunker think so.

First up, what is this “Internet of Things” (holiday tip: for tech cred, refer to it as “IoT”)?

In some ways, it’s nothing new. Our lives are already entwined with wireless devices and networks. Our smartphones are set up to connect automatically with the local Wi-Fi network at the office or the home. We have apps installed that will download basic fitness data from our Fitbit – our heartrate or the number of steps taken – or even more detailed medical data, such as a continuous read of blood glucose levels from implanted monitors. Others of us may already control our home thermostats or window shades from apps on our phones.

The Internet of Things takes advantage of this interconnection of electronic devices, allowing for the collection and sharing of data obtained from those devices without the need for human intervention. There will be consumer, governmental and industrial IoTs. For the consumer, much of this interconnection will occur in the home, with centralized devices collecting information and controlling objects all over the house. Your bottle of shampoo or bag of dog food may be equipped with inexpensive sensors that signal your home control device when you’re about to run out; your home control device then adds those items to your grocery list. Every lightbulb may be controlled remotely, meaning you will no longer have to rely on clunky timers to turn lights on and off while you’re away on vacation or expecting to arrive home after dark. Sensors in your garden may turn on your soaker hose as needed.

Apple’s HomeKit, Google’s Nest thermostat, and Amazon’s Echo are some of the first home control devices on the market, all in a race to dominate the home (reminiscent of the technology fights of years past – think Beta vs. VHS or 8-Track vs. cassette). Whoever gains market dominance within the next few years will dictate the world in which we consumers will find ourselves a decade from now. They will also dictate the standards and technologies that other manufacturers must follow to connect their devices to the home control device.

Much work remains to be done behind the scenes, as manufacturers work within standards-setting committees to agree upon uniform methods to allow for interconnection. Technologies such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ZigBee, Thread, PAN, LAN, backscatter tags, and 5G networks (expected to be much faster, with lower latency, than 4G) will all be used to transmit data. Many of these need to be updated to insure better security, work with the newest version of the Internet Protocol (IPv6) being rolled out, provide for better battery life, or connect with each other.

Meanwhile, regulators must grapple with several issues. Most IoT technologies operate on unlicensed (that is, Part 15) spectrum and do not require licensing or other FCC involvement (as long as they meet equipment and technical standards, of course). But the demand for unlicensed spectrum (e.g., 600 MHz, 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz) is expected to grow exponentially so that, even as the FCC opens more spectrum for unlicensed use, more will be needed. Perhaps not immediately – but certainly in the foreseeable future – the increasing spectrum demands are likely to require FCC intervention.

Another major issue is privacy. The Federal Trade Commission is taking the lead (though states and perhaps the FCC will also have some say) on how information can be collected, the best practices to prevent or address data breaches, and how to provide consumer notification about (and opt-outs from) the centralized data collection that is a dominant feature of IoT. And the government is working to set out best practices for industry to address cybersecurity – in this instance, how to ensure that the home control devices are not subject to hacking or unauthorized control. (Raise your hand if you want the kid down the street hacking into your system to turn on all of the appliances during the middle of the night.)

While shopping this year, consumers should be thinking about two issues: (1) which (if any) home control technology to select just right now and (2) how much privacy are you willing to trade off for the convenience of interconnection?

Whether and when to retrofit one’s home, as well as which technology to adopt, is a personal issue. While there’s currently much discussion about open standards and a standardized operating system to connect technologies, it’s not clear that all major manufacturers will cooperate with one another. Apple, in particular, has been known to develop closed devices that do not play well with others; it may well go that route again in an effort to dominate the market. If that happens, you’ll face another choice between being an Apple person or an open standards person. There may be significant advantages on both sides – but at this point in the development of IoTs, it may be too early to pick the approach best suited to your eventual needs. Also, until various technical issues are resolved, use and interconnection may be limited, which means early adopters may find themselves replacing home control devices or not getting the functionality that they really want out of them.

In terms of privacy, it’s important to recognize that the driving force behind much of the development of home control technology is the monetization of data collected and shared by IoT devices. The likes of Google, Apple, Comcast and Amazon want to learn more about your consumer habits. The more you play, by buying and using home control technology, the more they’ll learn. Of course, our email and Internet use already is being tracked, analyzed and sold. Many observers believe that Americans tend to be much more agreeable to this than their counterparts in, say, Europe where the “right to be forgotten” has been embraced as a measure to preserve privacy in a somewhat different context. It may be that you’d rather get that coupon for dog food once the bag is half empty, unconcerned that marketers have now labeled you as someone likely to spend extra on her pampered pet. Or not.

As you go about your holiday shopping, consider the opportunities that may exist in the next decade to control home life both from afar (starting the dishwasher, monitoring the activities of your elderly parent or your kids, etc.) and while at home (precision watering of your pepper plants or having the control screen on your fridge remind you to take your medications). But also consider: How much do you want your life programmed, and what tradeoffs are you willing to make (privacy, increased cost, Wi-Fi congestion) to get there?

Meanwhile, both through the holiday sales season and going forward, manufacturers should be participating in, or at least monitoring, the progress of the standards setting committee(s) already at work. In planning the design of their next generation systems, manufacturers should consider adding technologies to facilitate interconnection with home control devices, which may mean being able to transmit on multiple unlicensed bands. The Internet of Things is already here in many respects, and it will only expand. That expansion may be gradual at times, and it may also leap ahead occasionally with watershed moments (technical developments, standards adoptions, regulatory intervention) that will spur consumer acceptance. The more a participant in the IoT market anticipates, and prepares for, such expansion, the better positioned it will be to take advantage of the opportunities that expansion will present.

[Update: This post has been revised to reflect that Google does not sell information to data brokers.]